The central Home Ministry is yet to issue a timeline for the reopening of schools and for almost two months now, the classroom has been virtual. School education has been jolted out of its conventional ways by an unprecedented disruption. Many other countries embraced massive open online courses (MOOCs) years ago, and it shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to force Indian education to go online. But on the digital superhighway, as a series in this newspaper showed, mileage varies in a country with a yawning digital divide and no social security architecture. The level of success, across classes and income levels, is determined by two axes – the ease of digital access and the ability of parents to support learning at home. Earlier, enterprising children could succeed despite the poverty and illiteracy of parents because the classroom provided an enabling environment. But now the poor are disconnected and irrespective of background, some children cannot relate to the online classroom, and many more are losing out on midday meals. If education remains online-only, millions could suffer a loss of opportunity, at the expense of future national productivity.
The physical classroom does not only impart the syllabus. Children are also socialised, and there is an element of sport and play. However, while Pythagoras’ theorem and Eratosthenes’ sieve may be readily transmitted in the digital classroom, the matrix for socialisation is not replicated on an LCD screen. Parents have felt pressed, too, having to support their children’s classes while working from home themselves. Now that they are returning to the workplace, without reliable daycare facilities, both work and schooling could be compromised. Also, in the public interest, medical professionals in the UK and Europe argue that the role of children in transmission must be understood to arrive at a full epidemiological picture, and this can only happen when schools reopen.
The Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti has approached the Ministry of Human Resource Development, and other educational organisations await instructions from state governments. Schools may reopen in a staggered manner, with hygiene and distancing protocols in place, and induction should be contingent on testing. Perhaps residential institutions like the Navodayas should lead, since they can seal the perimeter and do not run the continuing risk of spreading presented by daily student traffic. The Centre should issue a timeline soon, because as in other spheres, despite the virus, life must go on in the classroom — with maximum caution.
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